Rebooting a classic television show from the 70s, turning the main characters into a Latinx family, and recreating a multicamera sitcom that addresses issues in a way that isn’t too preachy is one hell of a challenge. But Netflix’s new version of One Day at a Time manages to achieve this hat trick, giving us a new twist on the quintessential American family.
The show has scored plenty of fans across the board. Why is it such a hit?
“Lack of representation!” co-creator, producer, and showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett exclaimed to me over the phone earlier this week.
“I can only speak for myself and say that there wasn’t a show like this when I was a kid,” Calderon Kellett said. (It's true: Characters of color are constantly battling underrepresentation and harmful stereotypes.) “We’re talking about things that maybe haven’t been talked about in a little while, and people feel like, ‘Oh cool they’re talking about this, but I’m also having a good time and laughing.’ I think people feel the need to laugh in these moments.”
Mike Royce, who created and runs the show with Calderon Kellett, agreed.
“The issues that are important to this family are the ones we’re highlighting,” Royce told me. “We’re not setting out like we’re going to tackle an issue of the week because it’s a political show. For us it’s about specificity with these characters.”
This commitment to character is where One Day at a Time really shines. Multicamera sitcoms can drown in banal narratives and predictable dialogue. ODAAT’s characters do can feel like familiar types (the smartypants teen, and the slightly narcissistic son and the fiery matriarch), but they are given room to breathe and are allowed to make uncharacteristic choices.
“I think in a general sense, we’re always making sure, are we going into a trope or is this a real thing?” Royce said. “Sometimes they’re the same thing. A trope exists because sometimes it came out of something that was a reality, so [it’s about] being aware of how you’re communicating those things and making them feel real. And if it is a trope, are you subverting it somehow? Are you understanding that this is some kind of trope.”
"I’m using the word trope a lot right now,” he quipped, essentially demonstrating the show’s self-awareness.
When I first watched the pilot, the character of Lydia, played by Rita Moreno did strike me as a trope—and not always in a good way. While I enjoyed watching her, part of me struggled with seeing another “Spicy, Hot-Blooded Latina” on television. As the season goes on, however, Lydia’s character gets more fleshed out. The show delves into her difficult journey from Cuba, and how she learned to survive in the U.S. She ultimately gets some of the most poignant and emotional moments of the entire series.
Between that evolution, the sheer brilliance of Rita Moreno’s performance (SHE’S EGOT PEOPLE), and the multiple portrayals of being Latinx on the show, my initial worries were put to rest. Having a writers room full of women and Latinx folks certainly helps.
It was clear to me when I spoke with the showrunners that they had thought about all of this. That makes a lot of sense when you consider the broader television landscape. One of the struggles creators of color have is that, because there are relatively few shows about non-white people that get made, the ones that do emerge can come under pressure to represent all aspects of an ethnic or racial identity. We’ve seen that pattern with shows like The Mindy Project and Fresh off the Boat, which each faced criticism that they were undermining the people they were portraying.
But Calderon Kellett said that she wasn't too concerned with making sure they were creating the end-all be-all Latinx family.
“For me as a Latina, I see that on those shows," she said. "I know some of these wonderful smart funny people who have gotten the opportunity to write their family and you can see the moment where it went from their hands to someone else’s hands…I think I, like Mike and Norman, feel like specificity can be universal. The more specific you are, the more you’re speaking to your truth, and that truth is going to resonate. And so really from the beginning it was like, this is a Cuban family, this is what a Cuban family would do, and the support I got from that was astounding.”
It is that intimacy, that faithfulness to character and candor, that makes One Day at a Time so successful and worth watching.